For a moment such a flame of hate rose in him that it ran down his arm and clenched his fist against her. He took a wild step forward and then stopped.
“You’re—you’re not coming down?” he said in a bewildered voice.
After hanging up his coat, Ethan calls to Zeena but receives no reply. He goes up the stairs and opens her door, revealing a nearly dark room. Still wearing her traveling clothes, Zeena sits silently at the window. When Ethan informs her that supper is ready, she says she has no appetite. Zeena cuts short Ethan’s attempts to make small talk by announcing that she is much more ill than he thinks. She tells him that in the interest of preserving her health, she has engaged the services of a new hired girl, who will arrive the -following afternoon.
Ethan becomes angry at this unforeseen expense, and a raging war of words ensues between him and Zeena. After a bitter haggle regarding Zeena’s condition, in which she insists that she lost her health nursing his mother, Ethan resolutely declares that he lacks the funds to employ a hired girl. But, in so doing, he is caught in his own lie about the advance he had been planning to collect from Andrew Hale. When Zeena points out Ethan’s inconsistency, he is somewhat shaken. Zeena then further agitates Ethan by announcing that Mattie has burdened the household for too long and will have to leave. With Mattie’s board freed up, Zeena explains, they will be able to scrape together enough money for a hired girl after all.
Just at that moment, Mattie calls up from the landing to announce that supper is waiting. Zeena replies by declining her supper, and Ethan sends Mattie downstairs, promising to follow shortly. Turning back to Zeena, Ethan lamely attempts to defend Mattie. Zeena refuses to listen, proclaiming that with the hired girl’s arrival, Mattie must depart. Ethan fumes with hatred, but he stops himself from expressing it. Instead, he retreats from the bedroom as Zeena prepares to lie down for the night.
In the kitchen, Mattie brings a meat pie to the table, and she and Ethan once again sit down to supper alone. Ethan assures Mattie that everything is fine, but his disgust makes him unable to eat, and his dark mood produces a new wave of anxiety in Mattie. As she questions Ethan further, he rises from his seat and moves around the table to her side. With a trembling perplexity, Mattie leans toward him. As if to resolve matters, Ethan takes her into his arms and kisses her fully upon the lips. She remains in his grasp for a moment and then draws back to make sense of the situation.
With a violent outburst, Ethan declares that Mattie must not go. Confused at first, Mattie soon catches his meaning and realizes that Zeena intends for her to be replaced. After sitting in silence for a while, they forlornly begin to discuss Mattie’s bleak prospects for future employment. Filled with indignation, Ethan exclaims that he means to protect Mattie from dismissal and expulsion. No sooner have the rebellious words erupted than Mattie raises her hand in warning—Zeena comes in and quietly takes her seat at the table between Ethan and Mattie. Citing her need for nourishment despite her lack of appetite, Zeena starts eating her meal. Ethan sits motionless and Mattie attempts to make polite conversation. The cat rubs up against Zeena, and she strokes it and feeds it a scrap of meat.
After finishing her meal, Zeena rises from the table to find some old stomach powders. Mattie begins clearing the table, and Ethan muses that he will go outside to watch the nightfall. At the door, he meets an indignant Zeena on the verge of tears, holding the shards of the pickle dish in her hand and demanding an explanation. When pressed, Ethan blames the accident on the cat. Rushing to Ethan’s defense, Mattie explains that she had taken the pickle dish down to decorate the supper table. Zeena reprimands Mattie for her sneakiness and declares that she should have turned her out long ago.
The increasing gravity of Zeena’s illness—or at least what she claims is the increasing gravity of her illness—invests her with a ruthless authority in these scenes. Wharton compares Zeena’s discussions of her sickness with the behavior of someone chosen for “a great fate.” Zeena doesn’t see her ailment as a curse; she acts as though her ability to live with suffering proves her “elect” status, her virtue, and fortitude. She casts herself as a noble martyr, telling Ethan that although anyone else would need an operation given her condition, she is willing to struggle on without one.
Zeena’s placement of herself in the role of a martyr is certainly Ethan’s greatest obstacle in his attempt to keep Mattie, but even without Zeena claiming the higher moral ground, Ethan would be out of his depth. Zeena calls the shots because Mattie is her relative, not Ethan’s. Likewise, the domestic realm is Zeena’s concern, not Ethan’s. Zeena’s dominance within the household becomes obvious when Ethan, seething, has a sudden urge to strike at her but then inexplicably reverts to a state of passive bewilderment and meekness, retreating downstairs. Similarly, Zeena’s well-timed entrance into the kitchen forces Ethan back into silence just as he has finally managed to reveal his true feelings to Mattie.
Certainly, Ethan realizes that Zeena, a chronic hypochondriac, is exaggerating the severity of her illness in order to gain the upper hand in their relationship. Nevertheless, he remains powerless to oppose her. The self-possessed Zeena so carefully crafts her statements that, though they may be lies, Ethan cannot disprove them. Ethan, on the other hand, lacks grace and articulateness. He clumsily allows Zeena to catch him in his own lie about the lumber advance, and then proves unable to cover his tracks. As Wharton squarely notes, Ethan is no good at lying, and his natural streak of honesty is a factor in his eventual inability to realize his own dreams.
The broken pickle dish that Zeena discovers at the top of the china closet symbolizes the shattered Frome marriage. Mattie is partially responsible for the breaking of both the pickle dish and the marriage, having handled them carelessly, and Ethan cowardly hides the broken state of each. Significantly, though, it was the cat that actually destroyed the dish. Throughout the narrative, the cat is associated with Zeena, so the cat’s destruction of the pickle dish suggests that Zeena must share responsibility for the failure of her marriage. Zeena uses the dish as an excuse to vent anger that in fact stems from the disintegration of the relationships around her. She mourns for the destruction of the dish because she cannot openly mourn the collapse of her marriage and happiness.
Meanwhile, the reader is left uncertain of Mattie’s feelings, because Zeena’s arrival cuts short Mattie’s conversation with Ethan after he kisses her. We assume that she feels the same passion that Ethan does, but her words do not betray anything. Instead of discussing the kiss, she immediately turns the conversation to Zeena and the possibility of her own departure from the household.
Honestly, after I read the introduction, I thought the narrator was a woman.
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I would not consider Zeena a hypochondriac. She exhibits behaivor more reminiscent of Münchausen syndrome.
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